Lena Horne, legend, diva, activist, actress and one of the most iconic singers of the 20th century, has died at age 92. Her dynamic career and life have been well documented, from her relatively brief stint in films, where studio executives didn’t know what to do with her, to ardent civil rights activist to acclaimed nightclub singer. The Horne, as she was affectionately termed by Redd Foxx in his sitcom Sanford and Son, was one of a kind: a class act talent, the likes of which will not be seen again.
A light-skinned black actress, Horne was often cast as herself in a singing cameo that could easily be cut when the films were distributed in the segregated South. Stardom came with two big hits: Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. It was in the latter she would sing the 1933 song from which the film got its title – and it would become her signature number. While in Hollywood, Horne broke major barriers as the first black performer with a major studio contract and she also the first African American to appear on the cover of a movie magazine. Lena was also a pin-up girl for black soldiers during WWII, which the star claims help make her career. After her contract with MGM expired, she would only make two more film appearances: 1969’s Death of a Gunfighter and the 1978 adaptation of The Wiz as Glinda (in which she sang “If You Believe”).
Outspoken and unapologetic, Lena Horne was also unafraid to speak her mind and was very vocal in her frustration regarding racial injustice. Her left-leaning views, as well as her criticism of Army segregation led to her blacklisting in Hollywood. At the same time, however, she started to become a major presence in television and in nightclubs, and career never slowed down until her retirement in 1999 at age 82.
Horne’s Broadway career included five credits over the span of almost fifty years. Her first appearance was a small part in the 9 performance flop Dance with Your Gods which opened closed in October 1934. Her next Broadway show, Les Leslie’s Blackbirds of 1939 didn’t fare any better, and it too shuttered after only 9 performances. She was a Tony nominee in 1958 for the calypso flavored Jamaica (in a leading role originally written for Harry Belafonte – no joke), starring opposite Ricardo Montalban. The 1967 musical Hallelujah, Baby! was originally conceived and written by Arthur Laurents with Horne in mind, but the star passed on the project. She also teamed up with Tony Bennett for a brief concert engagement in 1974 at the Minskoff.
But it was The Lady and Her Music which made Lena Horne a bona fide Broadway legend. A concert revue, her show opened at the Nederlander Theatre to rapturous notices from both theatre and music critics. Lena talked about her life and career while singing many of her greatest hits. But it was the way that Horne sang to and included the audience in the evening’s journey that made it a spectacular audience favorite. The show extended its engagement, running over a year with a total of 333 performances and closed on the star’s 65th birthday in 1982. For her efforts, Lena walked away with the Drama Desk Award for Best Actress in a Musical and a Special Tony Award. The show was preserved on a cast album (which won two Grammys for Best Show Album and Best Vocal Performance, Female), and was also taped for PBS. Horne toured extensively following the engagement.
If you don’t own the cast album, you should. It’s an electrifying theatrical event; the sort of vehicle that comes so rarely and sweeps the town off of its feet. Horne is funny, personable and every inch a gracious, elegant star. For what it’s worth, the show is well overdue for a DVD release, too. Anyway, in the show, she takes a moment to talk to the audience about why she loves being a performer:
“I love it! I love it! I love this business. I wouldn’t do – look, I can’t I don’t, know how to do nothin’ else, but if I did, I wouldn’t change this for anything in the world. Whoo. I mean, you don’t know. You-you don’t know, but there is something that goes on between us, I must tell you. When you get home into the quiet of your wherever, think about what you are doing for me. You’re sending in – it’s a- it’s, it’s tangible, I can feel it. I can hear it, even when you’re quiet. It may just be pockets around here that don’t even like it, but what you sendin’ in is so positive that I’m workin’ with it, you know! I’m using it! Really, it’s fantastic. I not – I not only am – exist on you and really, when I’m out here, I don’t give a damn about anything that’s going on outside…”
And here is Ms. Horne in the show that made her a Tony award winner in her finale, a medley of “Stormy Weather” and “If You Believe”: